Preserving Rural History & Lifeways | Tipton County Library

In April of 2017, Mamaw gave me a book that contained a chapter written by her mom, my Granny (Garnet Pryor). I was still relatively young when my Granny died, and as is usually the case, hadn’t thought to ask her about her growin’ up years. Instead, I played with her homemade dolls, ate her candy corn, and entertained myself while the adults visited. So, I’m grateful that her voice and words still reverberate there. That I can now visit with her through them and she can continue to teach me who I am because of who I’m from. 

The book with Granny’s chapter

I won’t recount her whole story, but there were a couple of moments that really struck and resonated with me. Ones that likely embedded themselves in generational genetic memory that explain why I do certain things the way I do or think in certain ways. 

Granny and her sister Opal were very young when their mama died. Granny’s daddy did the best he could – advocated for them both to be in the same grade (Opal was moved up one), worked anywhere and everywhere he could to provide for them, but theirs was a needy life. They often stayed with relatives while Granny’s daddy was out of town for a job.

Dad went out and odd-jobbed where he could. He cut timber, he ditched, worked by the day on farms, and he did the farming where those $400,000 homes are today.

p. 121

The kids were often expected to look after themselves and the title of her chapter refers to them as ragamuffins.

People gave us their cast-off clothes, lots of them. ‘Course we lived like little ragamuffins—rag, tag, and bobtail…There were always a lot of eyes looking at us. We got to resenting it—gave me an inferiority complex—people looking us over to see if we were shaping up right. Some of the mothers, who had stepped by the wayside themselves, looked down their noses at us. It was then we felt different.

pp. 112-113

One memory she details struck me specifically in relation to my work with place, social class, and education. While sitting for an exam, Granny was moved from her seat to a different spot in the room which communicated to everyone that she must have been cheating. But she wasn’t. She found out later that there was a girl sitting close to her who was cheating off of her but the girl was wealthier and to avoid embarrassing her, the teacher moved my Granny instead. Reading that felt like the slap in the face it was. 

I was so busy writing, paying no attention except to the exam, when she came over and moved me to another desk. I wondered why. Felt so guilty, ashamed. Later I told Mary Kattness. She said, “Another girl,” she told me her name, a rich girl, “was copying off you and Miss Huffman didn’t want to offend by moving her, so she moved you.” That was so unfair! My final scores were much above hers, so honesty paid off for me

p. 122

Her discussion of the annoyance and ire at being forced to spit out a piece of chewing gum during Sunday school also struck me. See, the family was too poor for chewing gum. Instead, they would often chew the paraffin wax off the top of jelly jars. But Granny and Aunt Opal were given one by a wealthier community member. . They were so excited to be able to enjoy such a treat. But the Sunday school teacher, just following the majoritarian rules of propriety, made them spit it out without considering what it meant to them. As a teacher, I wonder how often I may have unknowingly done something similar. 

Sally Jessup was our Sunday School teacher. “Chewing gum, girls? It is not polite to chew gum in public. When you chew gum, you must not smack your lips like that or chew it so hard. Now go and spit it out!” I wonder if Sally remembers. I know we didn’t like her very well after that—brand-new gum and she made us spit it out! It’s those little hurting things kids always remember, don’t’ they? People think kids won’t but they do.

p. 121

Reading this chapter and working recently to preserve some other family stories and history, I realized that other folks might like to have this chance. Talking one night with my cousin Missy who happens to work at the Tipton County Library (where all my family is from), I decided to design a workshop that would allow folks the opportunity to research and write down family stories that feel important to them. I had never done anything like this before so I basically just designed it how I would if I were to do it in a course I was teaching. It looked like this: 

The Tipton County Library

Workshop Outline

Session 1: Collecting IdeasIn this session, we discuss strategies for collecting ideas and events to write about. I:
·      Introduced the project and read some examples (including my own writing) from different genres of the kinds of things folks could write.
·      Demonstrated a few different approaches to collecting. 
·      Gave participants opportunities to jot down ideas and ask questions. 
·      Encouraged them over the next week to record any memories from family members or themselves that they’d like to preserve about their family history as members of Tipton County
Session 2: DraftingIn this session, I demonstrate strategies for taking those ideas into the drafting stage. I: 
·      Gave examples from my own writing process as well as other famous/published writers in different genres.
·      Encouraged participants to write in a way that feels good and authentic to them and their stories. 
·      Conferred with writers as they have questions or want to run writing by me. ·      Allow writers to work alongside one another, asking questions and getting feedback on their work. 
·      Encouraged writers to have a finished draft by our meeting the next week. 
Session 3: RevisionIn this session, we discuss the revision process. This session would help writers re-envision their work in a way that strengthens their important pieces. I: 
·      Demonstrated a few of my favorite revision strategies. 
·      Asked writers to work in groups to help one another to build on the strengths of the pieces and discuss anything that trips them up as readers. 
·      Conferred with writers, reading parts of their pieces and answering any questions they may have. 
Session 4: Publishing & SharingIn this session, we celebrated all of our hard work with a sharing/reading of our pieces, and I offered the opportunity to create a publication Writers had the opportunity to hear and read all of the pieces as well as give encouragement through positive comments on the pieces. 

I was so tickled to be engaging in community literacy work in my parents’ hometown and excited by the level of engagement and thought that participants brought to the table. Folks were so excited to recount and put to paper memories that were important to them and had helped shape who they were as people. I was also reminded of the power of the workshop format. Because these writers were interested in and passionate about their topics, they were super engaged and curious when it came time to think about what genre to use, etc. 

Many of the attendees were family members, so I ended up learning even more than I knew before about who and where I come from. 

Here, I’m including pieces by folks who agreed to share — my mamaw (Patti Letsinger), my mama (Cheryl Schlenker), Diane Spooner, and Debbie Tharp. Thanks to y’all for sharing your writing and stories with us—for working to preserve your rural family stories and history. 

Mamaw and Mom’s stories helped me learn more about who and where I’ve come from, especially in the wake of the loss of my papaw who is the subject of Mom’s poem. 

Dianne Spooner’s poem I hope will one day be a children’s book. What a clever and fun way to pass on the value of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

Debbie Tharp expressed her desire to help her grandchildren understand how times have and continue to change through the telling of her life story and wrote part of it during our workshop. What a gift it is for her family. 

These pieces are reflections of rural life, family, and lifeways. This workshop gave me LIFE! I cannot tell you what a joy it was to work with these women on their pieces and how much I hope to be able to do the same with other rural folks in the future. If you’re interested in hosting or participating in a folk writing workshop, check out my services page

And, without further ado, the pieces —

Livin’ on Bearslide by Patti Letsinger

Mom’s great grandfather on her mother’s side homesteaded a quarter section of Bethlehem, which is now Carmel. I think there was 125 acres in the section.

Mom was 6 years old when Grandma died. So when it was time for her to go to school Grandpa got permission for my aunt to go to school also. My aunt was 14 months younger than Mom. Grandpa didn’t have anyone to take care of Aunt Opal so that is why he asked if she could go to school too. This was a case of it takes a village to raise a child. He had a lot of help from family while he was away working on a fencing gang. He also made cement blocks. Several of the barns and houses was built using his blocks. He also collected sap and made maple syrup. He did just about everything to take care of his family the best he could.

Mom and her siblings once ask Grandpa if he was going to get married again and he told them that the only way he would get married is if she had blue hair. So they felt pretty safe about not getting a stepmother. Now you couldn’t say that today. Since hair colors are blue, purple, red, and green.

We lived with my grandpa as long as I can remember. Mom took care of him since he had strokes. They called it harding of the arteries back then. I can remember him eating Cheerios and peanut butter sandwiches. And he always listened to the Lone Ranger on the radio all the time.

Grandpa had a stroke and walked with a crutch. His property had a creek going through it. There was a cabin on the other side of the creek and little old guy lived in the cabin.  Grandpa walked a quarter of a mile to visit his friend. One day, as he crossed the creek on the foot bridge he fell into the creek and cut his head open on some rocks. He laid there for several hours and finally made it back to our house. I came out of the house and saw him sitting in yard with blood in his white hair. It really scared me seeing all the blood. We took him to our doctor in Cicero and it was so bad that he sent us to the hospital in Noblesville. After his head was stitched up, he never had a scar.

Mom used to help in the kitchen when I went to school at Cicero. We just had one car and Daddy would drive it to work so Mom would ride the school bus with me. She would take her favorite knife from home to use at the school.

I didn’t go to kindergarten because of us only having the one car. So I was 5 years old when I started to school. The teacher didn’t think I was ready for school so she made Mom and Dad have me tested. ( I never did like her and I had her for a teacher in first and sixth grades).

When the water company started buying property if you didn’t sell they would condemn it and get it anyway. The water’s edge is where the barn used to be.

It was in the contract that they couldn’t develop the property for 25 years but once that was done houses was built like crazy and is still going on to this day.

Daddy’s Little Girl by Cheryl Schlenker

How do you start the story of a great man - 
One who taught you so much throughout the years?
You make a feeble attempt, 
So here’s mine: 
He was tough at times mostly when I needed it -
A spanking when I was out of order 
At times a raised eyebrow and the stinkeye would do
Other times the silent treatment was what I needed
No matter what form ensued 
There was always that one question: 
“Are you still my little girl?”
There were days when he worked hours and hours
And was dog-tired, but still managed a game of horse or
Badminton under the pole light at night.
He never let me win and sometimes rubbed it in
But always at the end,
those comforting words would begin
 “Hey, are you still my little girl?”
As time went by boys came and went
Most weren’t good enough in his sight
And he was right
Then there was college, so off I went 
Afraid to make mistakes, and many I did make
He was still there, the voice in my head, saying: 
“When the going gets tough. the tough get going” and
“If you’re gonna do it, might as well do it right the first time” and
“Get the lead out of your ass” and
”Two wrongs don’t make a right”
He had so many sayings,
So much wisdom
There’s not enough time to showcase them all.
Even when I fell short, 
Just like clock-work he would say 
“You still my little girl?”
He gave me a lifetime of laughs, 
lots of hugs. 
He taught me how to be tough and no one’s door mat
How to treat people how I want to be treated
I wasn’t his little princess.  
No, there was too much dirt and scrapes and crashes for that
At the end of the day, I was always, always his little girl.
                                                  Now that he’s not here it’s really hard
It’s not easy being Daddy’s little girl without him around
To ask if I still am anymore. 
But I want everyone to know that till the end of time I have always been
And will always be Daddy’s little girl

This Here Coin by Dianne Spooner

Have you ever stopped to think about a simple little coin
	And all the places that its been
From ocean to ocean and across the seven seas
	And now I find it sitting here with me
Think of all the planes and trains that took it here and there
Places that I will neer see
        Yes, I’ll have to admit
	Yes, I’ll have to agree
	That this here coin is a whole lot smarter than me. 

Have you ever stopped to think about a simple little coin 
	And all of the people it has met
From the great Presidents and the famous movie stars 
	To kings in their lands afar
It’s dined with the best of them and been with the rest of them
But still always the same. 

Yes, I’ll have to admit
	Yes, I’ll have to agree
	That this here coin is a whole lot smarter than me. 

Have you ever stopped to think about a simple little coin
	And all of the happiness it brings
You can send a letter home, call on the telephone
	But a set of wedding rings
You can make a day worthwhile, brighten up a child
	Make a coin collector smile
Yes, I’ll have to admit
	Yes, I’ll have to agree
	That this here coin is a whole lot smarter than me.

Have you ever stopped to think about a simple little coin
     and all of the things that it's been through
Its been thrown around left for days upon the ground
     and no one really seems to care
Its been marred and scarred, put in banks and put in jars
     and still its able to go on.

       Yes, I'll have to admit
       Yes, I'll have to agree
       That this here coin is a whole lot smarter than me.

So I’ve really stopped to think about this simple little coin
	And all the honor it deserves
I’ve begun to realize it should get a nobel prize
	For all of the tings that it has done
It’s got its education, from each and every nation
	It deserves a cum laude PhD

Yes, I’ll have to admit
	Yes, I’ll have to agree
	That this here coin is a whole lot smarter than me.

A Memoir for My Grandkids by Debbie Tharp

I dropped into this world in 1951 at St. Francis hospital in Beech Grove, a suburb of Indianapolis. Actually, most of us Southeastsiders were born there since there was no other nearby hospital. Truman was president, gas was $.20 a gallon, a postage stamp was $.03,  and the average home cost $7,000.                           

In the 1950’s big cities like Indianapolis were divided into self–sustaining neighborhoods, similar to a small town.  My family lived on Spann Avenue in the Christian Park neighborhood.  I didn’t think of us as poor at the time, but looking back we were definitely on the cusp of “poor” . Our house was a typical very small bungalow . One might call it a tiny home today.  I am the middle child of three girls and we were all squeezed into this very small 2 bedroom 1 bath home. Meals were simple and sometimes included game or fish my Dad had hunted. Mind you he was not Davy Crockett, just hunted or fished occasionally. Every meal, except spaghetti, included gravy. Rabbit gravy, quail gravy and squirrel gravy were sometimes on the menu. I don’t recall a fish gravy, but there might have been one.  My grandma lived next door. She did not have a phone so she and Mom would bang on their kitchen window frames to signal they wanted to talk. The windows were opposite each other just a few yards apart. Oddly enough the windows never broke.

Everyone knew each other in our neighborhood. There was Mr. Miller next door who loved to      throw a ball back and forth over his fence, and he would also repair broken bikes. There were Mr. and Mrs. Patrick, Mrs. Bottle, and Mrs. Steenbergen. Mostly us children called adults Mr. or Mrs. There were some exceptions to this but I could not tell you why.

There were a lot of kids in our neighborhood. We spent hours playing in the alley between Spann Avenue and English Avenue. Weekends and summers we rode our bikes to each other’s homes, played ball, and went trash picking (my personal favorite). Trash picking was somewhat like dumpster diving; only the dumpster was just the neighbors trash cans. We found old toys, bike parts, broken tools, furniture, etc. Mom never seemed excited about our finds. We also loved to go to Christian Park. It had a playground, wading pool, and a creek to play in. Dad and I often went to the creek in the summer to get crawdads or worms for fishing. 

Our neighborhood had businesses on a main thoroughfare, English Avenue . There were two small groceries, hardware, drug store, shoe repair shop, barber, and beauty shop. One of the groceries and the hardware were owned by Bob Hunter, who lived a few blocks away. The other businesses were also owned by local folks but their names escape me. Also there was a bar, chicken restaurant, Dairy Queen, post office and gas station. The Dairy Queen is still in operation today and looks the same as it did in the 1950’s. 

Mom’s favorite grocery was Hunters. My older sister Linda and I would walk the two blocks down the alley to the store with a shopping list from Mom. Mind you we were very little.. Bob Hunter, the owner, would fill the list and send us home with groceries and the bill. Once a week, on Dad’s payday, we would take a check to Hunter’s to pay for the week’s groceries. 

The drug store had a soda fountain, wooden pay phone booth in the back, testing device for TV tubes,, an assortment of penny candy such as Lik-m-aid, candy cigarettes, atomic fireballs, and Bazooka bubble gum. Most importantly they had the latest Superman comic books.  When we got a TV in the late 50’s, it would sometimes quit working, which usually meant a vacuum tube had gone out. Dad would find the culprit and go to the drugstore to check it.  I loved to go there with Dad to test tubes in the futuristic TV tube tester machine. Exciting times!

We rarely went into the bakery, couldn’t afford it, but we loved to look at the goodies through the window. We would walk along the side of the building in the summer when the door to the baking area was open and smell the pastries being created. 

Dad spent a lot of time going to the hardware for various things. I liked to go with him to see all the gadgets and tools. I also loved the smell of the wood floors, oil, coffee and the cigarette butt can. 

Leather, polish and glue were the smells of the shoe repair shop. We often had our old shoes re-soled to save money on new ones. One time I needed a pair of tap shoes to take a dance class and we couldn’t afford to buy new ones. Mom took a pair of my Mary Janes, which are clunky low cut shoes with a strap,  and had the cobbler put taps on them. I was horrified but I tapped as well as anyone else.     

Here I go with another smell of the 50’s. Every home had a trash burning barrel in the alley. They were gross and the smoke could get really bad. Speaking of smoke, Citizens Gas and Coke plant that was about 4 miles away from our house, bellowed out black smoke just about every day. It smelled awful and would often make my skin itch. Coke oven emissions are now known  to be human carcinogens.  How am I even alive today?

Our school was Christian Park #82. Most days we walked to school, about a mile, but if the weather was bad we had to take a city bus. In the 7th grade I won a contest to design a mural to be made for the main hallway. My design consisted of old buildings in a row with a stream in the front. I got the idea from a painting on Mom and Dad’s bedroom wall. Me and my girlfriends spent time after school for weeks putting those mosaic pieces in place. My claim to fame is that the mural is still hanging in the hallway.

Today the neighborhood is mostly a blighted area with vacant homes and high crime. How does this happen to such a happy “small town” like ours? But there are pockets of hope emerging! Little league and football teams are being organized. The park has been maintained well. Also School 82 was refurbished and is living up to its place on the Indiana Historic Landmarks register.  Yes I believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. But for now I think I’ll bang on the window for my Grandma and stay in the 50’s. 

Thanks again to these writers for their stories. 

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